Redesigning the World for a User-Friendly Future

Redesigning the World for a User-Friendly Future

In late June, GreenBiz hosted VERGE, an intriguing roundtable discussion among top executives about how vehicles, information, buildings, and energy all fit together and what the convergence of these technologies might mean for the future of business and society.

The meeting highlighted some very cool innovations waiting to be unleashed, and also exposed a major opportunity: Improving how we enable people in a user-friendly manner to help create the kind of future VERGE technologies enable.

Amidst the brilliance in the room, it became clear to me that at the current pace technology is advancing, it is only a matter of time before we have access to all the data and gadgets we need to address our future energy challenges.

A full list of the transformative technologies has been chronicled earlier on GreenBiz.com. My personal favorite is the platooning concept that will allow vehicles to drive themselves on freeways in close proximity to each other at fast speeds, thereby curbing their carbon footprint, all while you relax and watch DVDs of the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series in 2011.

An optimistic vision, yes, but even the most promising innovative technologies will not reach their full energy-saving and carbon-reducing potentials unless we create a culture that is dedicated to meaningful change. In order to do that, we must overcome one key obstacle: people.

Steve Murphy, a Director from Blach Construction, conveyed to the VERGE group that most facilities managers, who are critical for leading the charge on energy savings, are completely overwhelmed with data and can often be resistant to change. Building managers are just one part of the equation. Bill Glover, COO from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Colorado, showcased the company's extraordinary new net zero facility in Golden, Colorado. But even with cutting-edge data and technology at his disposal, Bill said he still "needed everyone in the building to be thinking about energy every day."

That is a big ask. We know people are not thinking about energy conservation 24 /7 -- if at all.

Consider these recent statistics from OPower: 80 percent of people report leaving air conditioning and heating systems on when they're not at home and 25 percent of people believe that turning on and off the lights wastes more energy than just leaving them on.

Data and technology will only get us so far if these kinds of beliefs persist. For us to truly converge the building, information, vehicle, and energy fields, and create a future markedly different from the present, we need to realize that human behavior is our biggest challenge.

The two questions that we all need to ask are:

1. Why do people think and act the way they do?
2. How can we change that?

Designers and thinkers are often much more passionate, and more successful, in solving for what is technologically possible instead of what is humanly feasible. That is because the human side of things is much messier and less predictable. Technology by and large does what we ask of it. People do not.

There is one group of people who know this better than most: city, regional, and state leaders. Fortunately, they were out at VERGE in force, a very welcomed addition, and they had a lot to say about the people side of the equation.

Melanie Nutter, Director of SF Environment, and Johanna Patin, Director of Climate Protection Initiatives for the City of San Francisco, shared their thoughts on changing behavior towards more sustainable practices.

One of their more effective programs is Environment Now!, which provides jobs to previously unemployed and underemployed people as green ambassadors. This program has a few characteristics that large company engagement programs would do well to emulate: They listen more than speak, are passionate, go door-to-door sharing ideas in terms of benefits relevant to their audience (health, children, fun), and are from the very neighborhoods they are trying to influence. And they are paid.

According to Donnie Oliveira, Green Jobs Coordinator for San Francisco, the city is reducing solid waste disposal and increasing energy efficiency substantially in areas they have never reached previously. One Zero Waste Outreach Campaign involved over 3,000 conversations with residents in one neighborhood. Within months the city had decreased solid waste disposal by 20 percent and increased composting by a factor of two. Listening to people is not easy, but it generates results.

Companies will employ data and technology across many industries and fields, including energy, vehicles, and buildings, to make changes we never dreamed were possible a decade ago. This is awesome. We should celebrate it, push for systemic improvement, and link even more disparate disciplines going forward.

That being said, we need to make sure we design a user-friendly future. If we do not ask ourselves Why do people think and act the way they do? and How can we change that?, the next world will look a lot like this one. Whether you are a sustainability director, construction manager, or COO faced with the challenge of making green work, you will need all of the data and technology VERGE can offer.

But you'll also need to figure out the people side of the equation

Thanks to Jill Bunting for contributing to this post.

Photos by Goodwin Ogbuehi, http://flickr.com/photos/yoshikatsu.

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